Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Many flavours in Key's porridge

Labour leader David Shearer inspected the porridge and proceeded to take credit for its appearance. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader David Shearer inspected the porridge and proceeded to take credit for its appearance. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Government's announcement of an extra $1.9 million a year to expand Sanitarium and Fonterra's breakfast in schools programme prompted a lively re-enactment of the tale of one of history's most famous breakfasters, Goldilocks.

Having put its bowl of porridge on the table in the form of that funding for any child who needed it to have Weet-Bix and milk for breakfast at school, the Government sat back and waited.

Labour leader David Shearer inspected the porridge and proceeded to take credit for its appearance, saying National had filched the oats from Labour which had cooked up the policy first.

Auckland Action Against Poverty fretted that the porridge was too small and such an unvaried diet was "lacking in nutritional variety".

Act leader John Banks thought the bowl was too big and should have been served up by Mama and Papa Bear instead of Big Corporate Bear or Taxpayer Bear.

Mana leader Hone Harawira spat at the porridge in disgust. He said it was too small, too cheap, and should have been provided by Taxpayer Bear rather than Big Corporate Bear.

He claimed his porridge recipe was vastly superior, in the form of his Feed the Kids Bill to give all children in decile one and two schools breakfast and lunch for $100 million a year.

Having previously pledged to withdraw his bill if the Government produced a convincing scheme, Harawira said his bill and the KickStart scheme were as different as chalk and cheese - and his was the more nourishing cheese while the Government's was the chalk.

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister John Key thought the porridge was just right - and a bargain, too, at $1.9 million a year. The porridge came with the added bonus of taking some of the wind out of Harawira's sails and blunting a good future campaign line for Labour, which adopted food in schools as policy last year.

All sides appeared to agree on one thing at least in this testing of the porridge - that in the ideal world, it is a parent's responsibility to feed their children. Where things fall apart is over who should feed those children when parents do not or cannot fulfil that responsibility.

Much of the conflict was ideological. There is a squeamishness in some quarters about calling in the corporates. It was shown when the Department of Conservation announced it would try to hook up more corporate funding for its projects as it dealt with a funding cut. It has popped up again with breakfast in schools.

Harawira and the Green Party argued that corporates could not be trusted to keep the scheme going, and if children were not fed by their parents they should be fed by the state rather than "charity".

Key's argument was typically pragmatic: Fonterra and Sanitarium could do it more cheaply than the Government could and if they were willing, who looks a gift horse in the mouth?

Nonetheless he took some precautions to make it difficult for those companies to pull the plug.

The Government funding effectively binds them to it for five years. Calling them in for a grand joint press conference also makes it a lot harder for them to pull out of the project without losing a significant amount of good will.

But it didn't take long for some Goldilockses to recognise that the breakfast on offer wasn't porridge at all, but herrings. Red herrings, to be precise.

The timing of the food in schools announcement had the effect of drawing attention away from the 13-page document that was released at the same time, the Government's rather watery response to the Expert Advisory Group's report on child poverty.

Critics observed that the Government had picked up on the relatively easy aspects of the report, the crowd-pleasers such as free doctor visits for children under six, food in schools, and pilots of microfinancing and warrants of fitness for rental properties.

But it had not touched the big picture recommendations - in particular, one that would require the Government to hold itself to account for child poverty. Its response was dismissed as mere "crumbs" although one minister pointed out that many crumbs together make a hearty loaf.

The reaction was in part a packaging failure by National.

A fortnight ago, it announced measures in the Budget which addressed several of the group's recommendations. It had boasted of a focus on poverty before that Budget.

Yet for some reason, the measures were presented in a piecemeal fashion rather than bundled together in one big jolly parcel and presented with ribbons as part of a coordinated war against poverty.

By the time it presented that co-ordinated response this week, all those measures were old news and the Government had left itself open to accusations that it had nothing left bar the porridge and was less benevolent Papa Bear and more Big Bad Wolf.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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